Tuesday, 26 April 2011

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I was prompted to read No Country for Old Men after reading this post about another McCarthy novel here, and realising that since loving The Road, I hadn’t read any more despite having two on the shelf. And I loved this one almost as much as The Road, so heres hoping it’s not too long until I read another.

Vietnam War veteran Llewellyn Moss stumbles across a failed drug convoy comprising numerous shot up vehicles, even more dead bodies, the drugs, and a case containing two million dollars. Almost instantaneously deciding to take the money, he returns home, packs his young wife off to her mother’s, and makes a run for it with the cash. Hot on his heels is a professional hit man with his own moral code, unusual execution methods, and a penchant for deciding I someone lives or dies by a coin toss. Also chasing him is Sherriff Bell, who knows exactly what Chigurh is capable of, and that he will stop at nothing to get his man. Through alternating storylines we see the actions and whereabouts of Moss, Chigurh and Bell. As Chigurh gets closer to Moss he is prepared to annihilate everyone that lies in his way, which is in effect everyone he comes into contact with, so the book is littered with dead bodies.

Although I can’t shake the feeling that Moss brought a lot of what follows on himself, he is a likeable character, and I was rooting for him all the way. It’s a side issue, and doesn’t detract from how I felt about this book, but really, why take the money? He obviously knew what he was getting into, to send his wife away, and go on the run. And Sherriff Bell is an officer about to retire who just wants to see out his last days in office peacefully and retire to spend time with his wife. In terms of personal feelings and past history we know more about Bell than any other character, mainly because each chapter is preceded by his musings, mainly on the state of the nation today, and how corruption and violence is widespread, and it is easy to see his despair both for the job he loved, and the nation he calls home.

“I read the papers every mornin. Mostly I suppose just to try and figure out what might be headed this way. Not that I’ve done all that good a job at headin it off. It just keeps getting harder. Here a while back they was two boys run into one another and one of em was from California and one from Florida. And they met somewheres or other in between. And then they set out together travelin around the country killing people. I forget how many they did kill. Now what are the chances of s thing like that? Them two had never laid eyes on one another. There can’t be that many of em. I don’t think. Well, we don’t know. Here the other day they was a woman put her baby in a trash compactor. Who would think of such a thing?”

Sherriff Bell’s narrative gives a framework to the whole chase story, and adds another level to what would already be a very good story anyway. His monologues give a sense of the destruction that crime in general, and specifically drug crime is having on the country, and particularly on Bell’s sense of hs ability to do his job. Throughout the book, it emerges that both Bell and Moss are affected by a pervading sense of guilt for their actions in Vietnam, which they both feel a sense of shame for, and although I felt this was an undercurrent, rather than a main plotline, it does bind the two men together, against the incredibly chilling Chigurh.

Chigurh is something else altogether, and it would be easy to characterise him as pure evil, killing anyone in sight, almost for the fun of it. In my opinion, he is, in fact pure evil, but he does live by a moral code, all be it a very strange one, one of his own devising. I think that makes him all the more frightening. Chigurh very simply believes in a form of destiny. If it is your time to die, then there is nothing you can do to stop it, and pleading with him is pointless, he is just the bringer of the inevitable. Someone with this belief would be a very scary person to meet, and deadly to cross. His worldview, and his ability to carry this out, is really all we know about Chigurh. This lack of any knowledge about his past, or his motivations for thinking like this just serves to make him more frightening. And some of his speech is truly chilling.

“I had no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and everyone a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.”

This passage doesn’t come until close to the end of the book, but viewed as a microcosm of the whole novel, it can be seen that actions at the start are inevitable, and even with the faint glimmer of hope that permeated my reading experience, it should have been obvious from the start how this would all pan out.

I think part of the intensity of this novel comes from the sparseness of the language. McCarthy is very economical with his language, and there are no superfluous words in this story. In fact, most of the progression is achieved through dialogue between characters, without punctuation, so the whole thing flows very quickly, as a normal conversation would. This seems to add to the tense atmosphere and the pace and chaos of the characters interactions becomes real. With no punctuation, it is hard not to read quickly, adding a sense of breathlessness and urgency to the action happening on the pages. In contrast, although Chigurh, who is the calmest character in the book, still has no punctuation in his speech, he tends to have longer passages, and he never seems to use slang, so his clarity of mind comes across as our reading naturally slows down. It’s a brilliant way of actually using the words on the page to enhance the story.

I‘m not sure I could say I enjoyed this book, as I don’t think it was altogether a pleasant reading experience. It was harrowing in places, tense in places, depressing in places and thought provoking most of the way through. I was gripped, and read it quickly, and totally absorbed in the cat and mouse chase between the three main protagonists. Yet, when that abruptly stopped, and the book turned into something else, I was just as gripped. This book paints a pretty damning picture of drug running underworld, but more than that, it presents a clear and simple picture of how one ill thought out act can change a life irrevocably, and that of many other people.

Fantastic book, fantastic author and I definitely need to read more. I think I may need to read this again too.


Charley said...

The scene that immediately comes to my mind is from the movie, the Friendo one, which I think stays very close to how it is in the book.

anothercookiecrumbles said...

Thanks for the link! The last paragraph of your review sums up McCarthy perfectly. You can't really say you enjoyed any of his books, but there's something about his writing that makes you beg for more.

Love the review - like you, this was the second McCarthy I read and like you, I was absolutely gripped. Such a fantastic story, so different from most of the other things I read.